The Unity of the Brethren

A Historical Sketch

The Unity of the Brethren traces its roots to the work of the reforming priest, John Hus, martyred in 1415. Hus was concerned with bringing the church back to its spiritual roots and removing distracting influences that tradition and custom had added over the years. Hus was concerned with providing the scriptures in the language of the people, instead of the church Latin version which only the educated and clergy had the opportunity to learn. Hus also desired the church to surrender much of the secular power and material possessions it had accumulated so that its spiritual mission could proceed unhindered.

The reforms that Hus suggested met with tremendous opposition from church authorities, although they were popular with the common people. The execution of Hus by the church in 1415 incensed the people of the Czech lands and led to the development of an alternative church, the Unity of the Brethren in 1457.

The Unity of the Brethren grew in influence until it was the predominant religious force in the Czech lands. The later reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin had several contacts with the Brethren in the course of their ministries. While the Anabaptists were opposed by the Roman Catholics and other Protestants of the time, the Brethren offered them sanctuary in their homeland.

The level of religious conflict in Europe grew until open warfare became inevitable. In 1620, early in the Thirty Years War, the Protestant forces in the Czech lands suffered a devastating defeat that led to the imposition of the Counter-Reformation by the Roman Catholic Church. During this time, Protestants were forced either to leave the country and become refugees or to practice their beliefs in secret.

Many of those Brethren who left their homeland joined the movement that later became the Moravian Church. Others who stayed behind practiced their beliefs in secret, sometimes with services led by pastors visiting from other countries in remote places for fear of discovery by Catholic authorities. For 160 years, the Brethren tradition was passed along in families from parent to child. Religious books like Bibles, hymnals, prayer books, and books of sermons were hidden from the occasional searches of Catholic leaders who sought to confiscate and destroy them.

In 1781, the emperor Joseph II proclaimed toleration for the practice of Protestant belief where there were sufficient numbers of them to start congregations. However, only those who adhered to the Lutheran or Helvetic (Calvinist) confessions were permitted to practice their beliefs openly; Brethren were still prohibited the open practice of their faith. Many Brethren joined with the Lutherans and Calvinists.

In the 1850's, word circulated in the Czech lands that there was cheap land in Texas where persons could make a new start in farming. Immigration continued and grew until ending with the outbreak of World War I. Czech Protestants started congregations where they settled in Texas to provide for the practice of their faith and the teaching of their children. Pastors from the Czech lands came to Texas to become leaders in these congregations and to start new ones.

In 1903, representatives of several of these congregations gathered to create the Unity of the Brethren in Texas, in the effort to resurrect the Brethren Church, suppressed for all these years in their homeland.

Within a few generations, the congregations of the Unity of the Brethren reflected the assimilation of their members into American society and culture. Most congregations began to transition from Czech language to English language worship services in the 1940's, although some congregations had occasional Czech language services into the 1970's.

The Unity of the Brethren today is a denomination that honors its past and its traditions, while looking forward to new opportunities for missions and witness. The ethnic identity of the membership as Czech has faded to various degrees, while many persons have joined the Unity from other traditions and ethnic groups.

The Unity remains committed to the practice of the Christian faith, seeking to recognize and affirm what connects Christians, rather than emphasizing divisions.